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by Kate Kooyman
I put my foot in my mouth this week. While catching up with a friend who is the middle of a significantly painful time of loss and change, I made the glib statement, “Well, God must really be trying to teach you something.”
Her response was as gracious as it was honest. “You know? I reject that,” she said. “I’m sick of people saying it. God doesn’t need to put me and my family through this for some life lesson. God can find another way.”
She was exactly right. It was a lazy platitude I handed her, a silly attempt to spiritualize her pain, and thus avoid it. I witnessed her suffering, and tried to hide.
After a church became a crime scene this week, there seemed to be a popular impulse to make some kind of sense out of such overwhelming suffering through this same spiritualizing. God was answering prayers, one pastor said of the 28 deaths. They were now closer to the Lord, said a television commentator.
But some didn’t go down this road of avoiding fear and suffering through piety and platitudes. They sent straight to protectionism. A pastor forum I’m part of wondered whether others were creating policies for guns in their congregation. The Michigan Senate passed a bill that would allow concealed weapons into churches (and daycares, and schools, and bars, and college dorms, and…). It is another avoidance impulse, I think: we see suffering, we fear it will draw near to us, so we protect.
In Leviticus 16, we learn the ancient ritual of the scapegoat: a priest piles the sins of all the people onto one lonely goat, who is driven far away from the community. The people watch that goat run away, and with it their sin and suffering and fears. Out of sight, out of mind.
Scapegoating feels good — active, meaningful, cut-and-dry. It feels good… for a minute, like checking Instagram when you’re avoiding a deadline. It’s a fix, but it’s not a solution.
It turns out that hurt people, who see suffering and immediately find ways to avoid or blame or protect, just turn around and hurt other people.
When faced with suffering, the hardest thing is to actually suffer. To feel the burden of grief, bear the weight of uncertainty and sadness and being scared. We avoid — and perhaps this is mainly what our platitudes and our weapons permits are really pointing to. We are afraid, adrift. We are alone, bereft. We are confused, aghast. “We face death, all day long…” and it’s awful. So we find a way around, a scapegoat. We spiritualize it, or we flex our muscles at it. And when we do these things, we hurt ourselves. We hurt others. We do violence, in our theology or with our weapons, to the very thing we’re trying to protect.
And it is not the gospel. The cross that so many of us wear around our necks as a reminder of grace, peace, love, faith — this cross is actually a weapon, with no earthly purpose other than to kill. In the midst of his fear, Jesus did not spiritualize that weapon, and he did not take up that weapon. Christ redeemed that weapon. Widened the lens. Revealed another way.
We are all, I think, aiming to watch our fears run off into the wilderness. We chase them away, with platitudes and piety. With “bad guys” and handguns. With border walls and extreme vetting. But the truth is we cannot avoid it. We suffer, we grieve, we die.
But if we are the church, then we are the people who have seen another way.
Let us be people of that way, in spite of our fear.